Bend it Like Beckham (United States/United Kingdom/Germany, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A wedding. Cross-cultural clashes. A young woman getting a makeover and finding herself. But there's no Windex and this isn't My Big Fat Greek Wedding. In fact, it's not My Big Fat Indian Wedding, either. However, it is a feel-good comedy that traverses similar territory, if not exactly the same road. Marketing will probably have a lot to do with whether Bend It Like Beckham finds its audience in North America (it's already an unqualified success overseas), but I would venture a guess that most people who were entertained by My Big Fat Unexpected Box Office Hit will leave this movie with the same kind of warm, fuzzy feeling deep inside.

Jess (Parminder Nagra) is the British-born daughter of Sikh parents. She is also a fairly typical teenager, and, as is true of nearly every teenager across the globe, feels the need to rebel. Her source of rebellion is to play soccer/football, and she dreams of one day being on the field with her hero, David Beckham, and kicking the ball in for the winning goal. However, although her parents tolerated her sports passion when she was young, they now believe she should become serious about her life and prepare for the future. That means giving up "children's games" for cooking lessons, marriage, and university studies. The edict to stop playing soccer comes just as Jess has been offered the opportunity to play for a semi-pro, all girls team. One of the players, Juliette (Keira Knightley), has seen Jess play and invites her to audition for the coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who thinks she's brilliant. So, what's a teenager to do? Sneak out of the house and lie about her whereabouts, of course.

Bend It Like Beckham touches on some serious issues like cultural assimilation, but doesn't go into any great depth. Like East Is East, which deals with a Pakistani family coping with the East/West tug-of-war, Gurinder Chadha's movie acknowledges that this is a divisive issue that creates inter-generational conflicts, but chooses to go for a more uplifting resolution. This is, after all, intended to be more light entertainment than a "message movie."

In addition to the main storyline – Jess trying to break free of her family's restrictions and find herself without irretrievably damaging her relationship with her parents – there are some subplots. One finds Jess falling for Joe, whose affection is also coveted by Juliette. Thus, we have a time-honored romantic triangle. Jess' best friend, Tony (Ameet Chana), has a secret he's afraid to tell his mother. Then there's the question of whether Jess can lead her team to the championship and get the chance to fly to America and be paid to play. (Since when was the United States such a hotbed of soccer mania?) So, of course, we get the big sports movie moment.

The leads are energetic and likable, especially Parminder Nagra and Kiera Knightley, both of whom bring a lot of spirit to their instantly likable characters. Irish actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, whose career is on the upswing, exudes charisma and may be on his way to sex-symbol status. Anupam Kher brings a sense of humanity to a role that could easily have been a caricature – that of the strict father who is torn between his own beliefs and his desire to please his daughter. Juliet Stevenson, as Juliette's mother, embraces the caricature label and turns in a scene-stealing comic performance. She's strictly two-dimensional, but she's funny in a cartoonish sort of way.

Bend It Like Beckham delivers a positive message that doesn't tax viewers in the delivery. It's frothy and undemanding, and proud of it. For director Chadha, this is a decided improvement over her previous feature, 2000's What's Cooking? It unashamedly wears the crowd-pleaser tag, and it's likely that some critics will gripe that it's too eager to enrapture the masses. Bend It Like Beckham is enjoyable enough that the sprinkles of artificial sweetness in the mix don't do lasting or irreparable damage.

Bend it Like Beckham (United States/United Kingdom/Germany, 2002)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2003-03-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1